Mike Kramer has seen the collective maturity of his players grow throughout his five seasons trying to rebuild the Idaho State Bengals. As ISU approaches the 2016 season, Kramer hopes that maturity shines through.
Kramer’s first three seasons at the Big Sky Conference’s most downtrodden program produced just two total league victories. In 2014, ISU experienced a breakthrough, posting an 8-4 record that included six Big Sky wins. The Bengals’ win total was the program’s best since back to back eight-win seasons in 2002 and 2003 and Idaho State’s first winning season in a decade.
Last season, injuries decimated the Bengals before the season began. Idaho State never found a consistent replacement for star quarterback Justin Arias and ISU reverted to its recent norm, posting a 2-9 record including just one Big Sky win.
“I’m pretty proud of the fact that the mission of our college football team is to not only win games but it graduate young men and we’ve graduated 117 guys over the last five years,” said Kramer, the four-time Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year, earning the accolade at Eastern Washington and twice at Montana State during his long coaching career. “That has made us more mature. We come off not a great season but a decent season in 2014 and we slide all the way back to 2009 with a 2-9 in 2015 and to a young mind, it might look like a train wreck. But it really wasn’t. For us, 2014 was a little bit of a false summit.
“We only beat one team with a winning record. Whereas last year, we competed pretty darn well and had leads against a lot of teams in this conference who were pretty darn good. Had the very ending of the Montana game gone the way we wanted, I think it would’ve given us great momentum through those last three ball games. But it didn’t go that way. Now we have a chance in 2016 to right the ship.”
The loss of Arias, a cerebral and accurate signal caller who threw 38 touchdowns in 2014, proved to be a key in ISU’s struggles. With junior college transfer Michael Sanders and redshirt freshman Tanner Gueller struggling to run Idaho State’s up-tempo pass-oriented offense, the Bengals fell behind early often.
“You get a taste of success and you want to have that all the time,” said senior K.W. Williams, who caught 52 passes for 684 yards and seven touchdowns last fall. “I’m not saying we were complacent but we kind of settled a little bit. We had the talent and we showed that in 2014. The only guys we lost really, we lost a few seniors on defense, Justin Arias and an offensive tackle (Jim Bagley) on offense. We thought we just needed a quarterback to fill in a little bit, someone to put the ball where it needs to be and everything else will fall into place. That didn’t happen, that wasn’t the case.”
Idaho State’s defense lost linebacker Mario Jenkins, the 2014 BSC Freshman of the Year, and All-Big Sky safety Taison Manu to season-ending injuries during fall camp and the defense struggled to stop the run all season long. ISU gave up 269 rushing yards per game, including 344 in a loss to Boise State, 517 in a loss at UNLV and 499 in a loss to Cal Poly that put ISU at 1-4. The Bengals never recovered.
“We are like an NFL team,” Kramer said. “You can take three or four guys and push them off the field for a couple of weeks but you can’t lose them for a whole season. You lose a key guy here, a key guy there and our entire season can be gone in the snap of your fingers. That’s how it worked for us.”
Two specific plays are microcosmic examples of Idaho State’s 2015 season, Williams said. A week after scoring 42 first-half points and 55 overall in a season-opening win over Division II Black Hills State, Idaho State marched the length of the field for a touchdown to open the action against Portland State. On the ensuing kickoff, Khalil Dawson broke loose, returning the kick 100 yards for a touchdown.
“Last year against Portland State, we went down on our first drive and scored. We thought we were right back where we were in 2014. The ensuing kickoff, they returned it and it seemed like all the air in Holt Arena was vacuumed out of there,” Williams said. “Everyone was on the sidelines in shock.”
Portland State went on to post a 34-14 win over the then-No. 23 Bengals. The 58-26 loss at Cal Poly three weeks later pushed ISU’s losing streak to four. The Bengals rallied from a 31-15 deficit to post a 37-31 win at North Dakota for their only league win. The following week, Sanders threw three interceptions in a 45-38 loss to Eastern Washington, suffering an injury in the process and losing his starting spot to Gueller for a few weeks.
During their first game in November, the Bengals had Montana on the ropes, pushing the Grizzlies’ season to the brink. With the score tied 27-27 in overtime, ISU lined up for a 34-yard game-winning field goal attempt. The snap went awry, Eric Johnson sprinted under the fumbled football and returned it for a game-winning touchdown to keep Montana alive in the playoff race.
“We should’ve won that game,” Williams said. “We had Montana beat.”
Idaho State enters the 2016 season with tempered expectations. After a season lacking continuity in offensive play calling, Matt Troxel is now the full-time offensive coordinator. Don Bailey, Kramer’s longtime offensive coordinator, left ISU for Hawaii just before last season. Sheldon Cross was the offensive coordinator while Troxel was the associate head coach for the offense in 2015. Troxel, Cross and Kramer all called plays at various times last season. If Bailey would’ve stayed, Gueller might’ve been the starter from the opening game last season.
“The plan long range was that he might be able to be a starter as a freshman,” Kramer said. “When (Bailey) went to Hawaii, I said, ‘No way, we are not going to play a freshman quarterback.’ When they get in trouble, they try to work their way out of it instead of going back and reading the directions. They put their own furniture together. We tried everything in our power to not start him but after an injury to our starter, we had to start him.”
Gueller threw for 253 yards and three touchdowns against Montana but Sanders started the final two games of the season. Now the 6-foot-2, 240-pound redshirt sophomore is the unquestioned starter under center.
“Both quarterbacks last year were pretty good but the chemistry between the quarterback and the receivers wasn’t all the way there like we had with Justin in 2014,” Williams said. “Having that this year with Tanner is going to be a big key to our success. Having a named starter, someone that you know is going to be the guy, now we have someone to count on and someone to hold accountable.
“His confidence has improved throughout the entire school year. The thing about Tanner is he was confident coming in as a true freshman. When he got his time as a redshirt freshman, he wasn’t back there pooping the pot. He stood back there and took hits. He threw his share of interceptions and he didn’t try to blame it on someone else.”
During spring drills, Kramer said Gueller was “a whipsaw” and “the most dominant player on the field every practice.”
“He’s seen a great season and a season we couldn’t get unraveled,” Kramer said. “He’s had two various experiences at the position and seen the fallacies. Now it’s his turn.
“As high as your quarterback goes, you go. Last year, we were not consistent enough at quarterback to beat anybody. Now we are much better at quarterback and time will tell if it stays that way.”
ISU’s offense will need to replace guard Wesley Wingrove, right tackle Terrence Carey and center Christian Diehm, each three-year starters. The Bengals lose All-Big Sky running back Xavier Finney, the school’s all-time leading rusher, and two-time All-Big Sky wide receiver Madison Mangum, the team’s leading pass catcher each of the last two seasons. Speedster Jakori Ford will slide in at tailback while Williams leads a wide receivers group that must replace Mangum and Broc Malcom, an expected returner who has been ruled academically ineligible for the 2016 season. Josh Cook, a two-time All-Big Sky selection at tight end, returns for his fifth and final season with 100 catches in his career.
Defensively, All-Big Sky defensive tackle Tyler Kuder is now gunning for a roster spot with the Green Bay Packers. Last season, Rasheed Williams piled up 8.5 tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman but last week suffered a season-ending knee injury. The return of Jenkins, a 6-foot-3, 247-pounder who Kramer calls “an NFL talent” will instantly boost the linebackers while the return of Manu will bolster the back end.
The key for Idaho State, Kramer said, is replicating the mentality of 2014 and forgetting about last season all together.
“I feel like those guys paved the way and created the type of mentality for the guys on the team will carry on,” Kramer said. “They don’t have to fight through wondering if we can win. They have already seen an Idaho State football team win. They know what it takes, they know how to survive it, they know how to make it happen. Now they have to do it.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.